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Sada - Analysis

What Tunisia Proved—and Disproved—about Political Change in the Arab World

عربي

The Tunisian revolution has fulfilled longstanding expectations that the youth bulge in Arab countries would eventually lead to political instability; it also showed that the weakness of opposition movements might be less significant than many observers believe. The Tunisian uprising raises so many questions that it is difficult to focus on only one or two, but one of the intriguing aspects of the January 2011 events is that they simultaneously strengthened and smashed several longstanding pieces of conventional wisdom about how political change might come to Arab countries.  Tunisia showed that the youth bulge about which demographers and other analysts have been fretting for two decades is indeed a political time bomb.  At the same time, Tunisia debunked the long-held analysis that only a country with a cohesive political opposition can overthrow an authoritarian system.

The Tunisian uprising was rooted in the problems of youth unemployment, though it leapt quickly from there to protests about official corruption and lack of democracy. The Middle East youth bulge—generally defined as a period in which there is a relatively high proportion of 15 to 24 year olds among the adult population of any country—and its attendant problems of youth unemployment, overburdened educational systems, and the postponement of marriage have preoccupied scholars of the region since at least the early 1990s. Looking at the experience of other regions, scholars reasonably enough theorized that the youth bulge could lead to political instability in the Middle East. Demographer Ragui Assaad, for example, said in a 2008 interview that “The presence of large number of underemployed and frustrated young men, with potential access to weapons, is often a recipe for civil conflict.  Thus the youth bulge could provide significant demographic dividends, but if not dealt with with the right policies, could result in political instability and civil conflict.” 
 
Connecting the youth bulge with political instability in theory is one thing, however, and seeing it actually unfold on the streets of an Arab country is quite another. It is the painful similarities between Tunisia and other Arab countries in this regard that give pause.  The percentage of Tunisians between 15 and 24—21 percent in 2005—is quite similar to that in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries. Although figures often are unreliable, a 2007 analysis by Assaad and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi estimated youth unemployment for these countries to be between 20 and 40 percent, and then in addition there is rampant underemployment. Certainly the other grievances of Tunisians—corruption, human rights abuses, lack of meaningful political participation, a leader who twisted the country’s laws and constitution in order to remain in power for an entire generation—are widely shared in the region.
 
Until the recent events in Tunisia, however, the theory went that even with all those reasons for public discontent, no Arab population could overthrow an authoritarian leader without a cohesive opposition movement. Analysts cited the weakness of political parties in the Arab world as one of the main reasons for the persistence of authoritarian governments. And yet the Tunisian opposition was among the weakest in the Arab world: none of the three small opposition parties (the Democratic Progressive Party, Renewal Movement, and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) that initially joined the transitional government, nor the exiled Islamist Renaissance (Nahda) Party, played a significant role in the uprising. They certainly did not form a cohesive front capable of putting pressure on the government, and none of their leaders are charismatic figures who inspired protestors. Nor did labor unions, professional syndicates, or other organizations fill the organizational role in a major way. And so it apparently is possible for a population to put enough pressure on an Arab authoritarian leader to step down even if it lacks strong opposition organizations and compelling leadership.          
 
Tunisia has its own peculiarities—a population prosperous and educated enough to have high expectations, more equality of the sexes than exists in other Arab countries, and a relatively weak Islamist political movement—that undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the Jasmine Revolution occurred there and not elsewhere, and that it had a strikingly liberal and secular countenance. It is far from certain where Tunisia will go from here, and whether the country will move smoothly from a revolution with relatively little bloodshed to a truly democratic political system.
 
Still, whatever happens from now on, the Tunisians have taught all observers at least three unforgettable lessons: first, widespread economic grievances such as youth unemployment can indeed quickly translate into specific demands for political change, and second, this can happen even in the absence of strong opposition organizations. The third lesson of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was perhaps the most memorable of all: when long-postponed change finally comes, it is often startling how relatively little effort and time it can take.
 
Michele Dunne is editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.   
 

 
عربي

Comments (17)

 
 
  • ptp
    Excellent argument above - how come we didn't see it coming?
     
     
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  • Maysam
    Undoubtedly one of the smartest and cool headed articles written on Tunisia in the past two weeks.
     
     
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  • Kacem
    Ben Ali, the-ex dictator has fled the country on January 14, his departure unraveled the unjustified support of “Western democracies” to Arab oppressors! Until the last minute, the French government was behind Ben Ali and never doubted his twenty three years of abuse of power. Today, it is about time for the West to show genuine support for this newly-born democracy and help its people engage in the democratic game. There is no doubt that events in Tunisia will have a significant impact on a region that has one of the youngest populations in the world, and whose demand for democracy will come sooner or later, with or without support from the West.
     
     
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  • dgb
       Surely the character of the incumbent government played a critical role in this transition. That they did not mount a repressive attempt to stifle the change is not a behavior that should be expected in other situations of this kind.
     
     
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  • FGH
    Was this a thawra or an inqilab by the ruling party to protect its position?

    As Bourgiba was shunted aside in the past. More Kabuki.
     
     
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  • The Expatriate Professor
    Thanks for the excellent article. It is about time that the Arab youth start to think about throwing out all the repressive regimes and unite as one free nation that is governed in a truly democrat way. With hard work, this nation will in no time be the richest nation on earth (and I am not saying the strongest) with all the natural and human resources that are currently seized by the corrupt few rulers and their corrupt mafia gangs. The majority of the Arab people do not want Islamists to take over and it is in the West’s and the rest of World's interest that the current majority takes over and builds a democratic system that absorbs the Islamists in a democratic system, rather than wait for an autocratic system. In few years it will be too late as the majority of people will slowly be truly convinced that “Islam is the Solution” and this will be at the peril to everyone, particularly when Iran gets the bomb. The trend is clear and it is quickly moving in this direction from Morocco to Oman.
     
     
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  • wahid labidi
    I agree with the the two first lessons, however the third one seems not fair towards efforts and time dedicated by Tunisians. I may got the wrong sense of the wording. Can somewone further explain the third lesson "Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was perhaps the most memorable of all: when long-postponed change finally comes, it is often startling how relatively little effort and time it can take".
     
     
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  • Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center
    In this exceptional piece, Michelle Dunne provides an interesting discussion of how conventional wisdom failed to anticipate the spark for and outcome of the Tunisia uprising. However, she does the Tunisian trade union movement a disservice by dismissing its grassroots activism before, during and after the ouster of Ben Ali. Contrary to her assertion that labor unions, professional syndicates or other organizations did not fill an “organizational role in a major way,” the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT), before the president’s ouster, had made strong public statements at the local and national level calling for national dialogue on economic reform, the release of political prisoners and the defense of general freedoms. UGTT also organized widespread general strikes and demonstrations in support of the uprising.

    The labor movement had the choice to stand on the sidelines; instead, it dove into the fray. The UGTT—with hundreds of leaders and thousands of members—served as a major source for local and international press throughout the crisis. Far from simply playing the role of an old institution tied to the old order, local UGTT leaders have been among the most active in forming, leading and joining civil-society coalitions across the country, including the neighborhood committees that helped protect Tunisian civilians from the president’s rogue security forces. In taking the stances that they have, UGTT local and national leaders have been both reflecting the will of the people and leading it—exactly the role strong trade unions anywhere in the world can and should play. Whatever reservations Tunisians might have about some senior labor leaders, the whole labor movement played a critical role in Tunisia’s struggle to end autocracy and continues to do so as the situation unfolds.

     
     
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  • Michele Dunne
    Mr Labidi: The last comment was simply that the whole Tunisian uprising happened in only four weeks, a surprisingly short period, and that Ben Ali gave up more quickly than I think many of us would have expected.

    Ms Bader-Blau: I apologize it I gave labor organizations short shrift. I simply meant that it did not seem that they took the place of political parties.
     
     
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  • nhotard
    I am originally from Tunisia. I experienced the student uprising of the 1960s. My MA and Doctoral research focused on examining the reasons why secularism is not even a concept in the socio- political dynamite structure of Muslim culture.   My depiction of secularism, an oxymoron and a concept totally alien to any Muslim regime, was the basis for prediction of current events. A true democratic system in Tunisia will have to be built through efforts of energetic global citizens willing to address the plethora of problems in the country. The risk of the small nation's fall into the hands of extremists and fundamentalists is real.   Scholars need rethink U.S. foreign policy goals. State Department strides accomplished in the past two years provide a sense of optimism Thanks to many programs, global citizens around the world are connecting and alleviating the shrouded misconception propagated by the media.   We are finally realizing that only individuals, driven by a genuine sense of global citizenship and a pure humanity can foster positive change. There is good and bad everywhere. However, in the U.S. we have a constitution and inalienable rights. I am determined to provide our youth opportunities where they can acquire knowledge empowering them to transcend inequity and make the wrong right.   The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace articles are the most prolific and accurate in depicting the political and social problematic global scene. Words of thanks will never express the gratitude I would like to extend for having such great professional journalists who dare not to be politically correct in their objective and well documented reports.
     
     
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  • Hafed Al Ghwell
    This is a beautifully reasoned article Michele as always. As you already know, I have personally believed, ever since the US threw itself at Gaddafi’s feet - the quintessential symbol for both tyranny and terror, that freedom and democracy will come to the Arab world despite the US and EU, not because of their help.

    I hope Tunisians, as I hope other Arabs once free, remember the countries, companies and organizations, that stood by them when they were down, not those who helped kick them and stood with their oppressors, even if only by silence.

    All Arabs are Tunisians now, and we all need to Tunisize the whole region.
     
     
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  • Miranda Sissons
    A great comment. But the main question is whether, after the fall of Ben-Ali, change continues and deepens. That is when we will truly discover what the lack of cohesive opposition movements might mean.
     
     
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  • vijay from india
    too simpistic an analysis. no sociological angle explored. article is overwhelmed with ethnocentrism.
     
     
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  • Test Commentor
    this is a test comment.
     
     
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  • Webmaster
    This is a test comment. Please check to make sure it goes through and can be posted.
     
     
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    This is a test comment.
     
     
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  • Matrix Jeff
    Matrix Test...again
     
     
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Source: http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/01/19/what-tunisia-proved-and-disproved-about-political-change-in-arab-world/6boq
 

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